Dr Henry McCann

Who am I?



I practice medicine. And, yes, it’s not the normal antibiotic, hospital emergency room, white coat medicine (even though I have a white coat, I don’t like to wear it), the practice of Chinese medicine is still medicine with all the frustrations as well as the joys that normally come with the territory. Here’s an example of the frustrations…

One morning I had a voicemail message from a patient’s insurance company asking for more information about a claim. So, I got on the phone and started what would turn out to be one of the worst ways to start a nice morning, especially since I had yet to drink any tea that day. It took me about 10 minutes to get to a live person (I hate phone trees). Once I did, the person was incapable of answering even the most basic of questions, and it soon became clear that the company was only interested in denying reimbursement for any treatment. I asked for the representative’s supervisor: more waiting, even fewer answers, and even more attitude. As the supervisor kept talking, I kept becoming more aggressive and annoyed. I asked for the next supervisor up the food chain: even more annoyance, even more anger. It took me a while to notice that in the midst of all this my heart was beating harder and faster, my chest was tight, my throat was sore, my head hurt, and I was sweating more. I was angry. Realizing this, I apologized to the woman I was speaking with and told her I knew that none of these policies were her fault, and that my getting angry with her wasn’t going to change that fact. I asked her to note in the file that I was going to report what I thought was inappropriate behavior on the part of the company, not her, to the state insurance regulators. I felt really bad for her for having to deal with me, and, when I did, I actually felt better myself.

As I mentioned in my previous writing, Chinese medicine recognizes that mind states are one of the most significant causes of disease. Anger in particular is a serious threat to one’s physical and emotional wellbeing, and perhaps one of the fastest ways to sever the root of life and vitality. Specifically, anger (nu 怒) is one of the five mental poisons that we recognize in Chinese medicine, and the one associated with the liver organ and the wood phase/element.

It’s important to remember that in Chinese medicine, organs are not really the same thing as in Western medicine. What we call “organs” in Chinese medicine are really networks of physical and emotional functions that have predictable patterns readily observed in the clinic. In other words, an “organ” is just a way to describe functional reality more so than anatomical structures. The “wood” phase in Chinese philosophy and science represents the birth of life, the beginning of movement upwards and outwards, and the beginning of warmth. This is what we see in the natural environment during spring. In the body, this similar movement of vitality is called “liver.”

One of the basic diseases discussed in Chinese medical texts is called Jue (厥). Jue is often translated as “counterflow,” and is supposed to refer to when our Qi, or animating vitality, runs in a direction contrary to what is normal. Actually, Jue refers to any perverse and diseased movement of Qi in the body. In the liver’s case, Jue means that vital movement upwards and outwards happens too strongly, damaging the heart, the head, and other parts of the upper body. Instead of liver being the gentle warmth of springtime, it becomes the perverse movement of upward raging fire. Physically we experience just what I described above in my encounter with the insurance company – palpitations, chest pain, sore throat, headache, and more.

Anger, the mental poison of the wood and the liver, is the easiest way to cause this perverse movement. Chapter 3, line 11 of the Huang Di Nei Jing, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine that I mentioned in previous months, contains a vivid description of this reality:

“When a person is angry, his physical shape and yang qi will be extinguished, which cuts off the circulation of qi to cause blood coagulation in the upper body. This leads to a disease called ‘acute counterflow’ (bo jue 薄厥). The tendons are injured and become relaxed, incapable of supporting the body.”

Modern commentaries believe this passage essentially describes a condition such as a stroke triggered by anger states. Chinese physicians as long as 2,000 years ago noticed, quite astutely, that angry mind states, especially if they persist over a long period of time, are directly related to many physical diseases. Modern science agrees with these findings. Research studies have shown that “individuals prone to anger, hostile attitudes, and antagonistic social behavior are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. These hostile personality traits are associated with incident coronary artery disease (CAD) and stroke.”* Other chronic diseases such as diabetes are similarly linked to hostility and anger.**

Today in the far north of China there is a lineage of Confucian healers who treat serious disease not with drugs, surgery, or even acupuncture and herbs. Their method is treating serious physical diseases through the mind by group story telling, creating supportive community, and personal affirmations in the form of chant. One of the method’s modern masters is Liu Shan Ren. According to Mr, Liu, “you get angry, then the fire comes up in you. Having this rage, this fire, that is what causes disease.” He continues by lamenting, “too bad that this is such a simple principle, but people do not understand it, even to the present day.”***

Indeed, anger states cut us off from the root of life, depleting our vitality and damaging the most important organ, the heart. Anger, day by day, darkens the spirit brilliance, that illuminating brilliance of clear consciousness that arises from the heart. We then suffer on many levels. The physical body becomes depleted, and the mind can no longer see the true nature of reality. But how then can we treat anger? Although Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, and diet are good starting points, better yet, even according to ancient physicians, is working directly with the mind and behavior.

In opposition to the five mental poisons, Chinese medicine and Confucian philosophy recognize the five virtues (wu chang 五常). The virtue of the liver is ren 仁, the cultivation of which controls and eventually eliminates anger. Ren is sometimes translated as benevolence, and sometimes as compassion. It is one of the chief concepts in Confucianism that is the mark of a sage or truly actualized human:

仁以為己任,不亦重乎,死而後已,不亦遠乎。 “Benevolence is the burden which he considers it is his to sustain - is it not heavy? Only with death does his course stop - is it not long?” (Analects of Confucius Book 8)

Day by day we should strive to develop a sense of compassion and benevolence. Every person we encounter is worthy of our compassion and compassionate action. On a practical level we start by learning and practicing compassion with our closest family and friends, and even ourselves. When we learn to be gentle with them (and ourselves), we can slowly learn to be compassionate towards more and more people. Sun Si Miao, the Tang dynasty physician now revered as the King of Medicines, admonished physicians to treat every patient as if they were a close relative. When we start with simple acts of kindness – treating others as we would like to be treated, comforting others as we would like to be comforted – we slowly learn compassion. As compassion and benevolence grow, anger recedes. As compassion and benevolence grow, we learn to create community and connection with everyone. This is the true medicine.

I’ll finish with one of my favorite Chan (Zen) stories. One time Han Shan was leading oxen over to where some monks were lecturing about the Buddhist precepts to a young group of novices. He leaned against the gate where the monks were, clapped his hands, and chuckled, "What a throng! What's all this milling about?" One of the senior monks shouted angrily, "You stupid lunatic! You're interrupting our lecture on the precepts!” Han Shan laughed, "No anger. That's the precepts."


*Smith TW, Uchino BN, Berg CA, Florsheim P, Pearce G, Hawkins M, Hopkins PN, Yoon HC. Hostile personality traits and coronary artery calcification in middle-aged and older married couples: different effects for self-reports versus spouse ratings. Psychosom Med. 2007 Jun;69(5):441-8.
**Shen BJ, Countryman AJ, Spiro A 3rd, Niaura R. The prospective contribution of hostility characteristics to high fasting glucose levels: the moderating role of marital status. Diabetes Care. 2008 Jul;31(7):1293-8.
***Freuhauf H. Emotional Healing in China (video), available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYvur6BZlBI&feature=related. Accessed August 6, 2010.